Education column: Students learn more than robotics in technology class

By Cindy Kleyn-Kennedy: Clovis Municipal Schools

Isaac Asimov once said “the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny…”

I actually heard that exact phrase uttered by a student in that scientifically inquiring way just before the holiday break.

Judy Williams, technology teacher at Clovis High School Freshman Academy, was teaching robotics and showed me around her classroom. Eavesdropping on several of the student robotics teams, I heard the “… that’s funny …” remark as the students rallied around their robots, completely oblivious to me.

They focused on adjusting their programming, sensors, conferring with each other and bounced back and forth between their computer and the work area on the floor, where yet another test was run with the robot following a mapped course.

Without exception, all the students in the room were completely absorbed in their tasks.

In “Intro to Technology” offered at the Freshman Academy, Williams’ curriculum covers a mix of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers orientation and activities, incorporating math and language arts skills in the first nine weeks.

For the second nine weeks’ robotics unit, Williams let the class form their own groups, and after minor adjustments, the groups of five or six students set about deciding who did what, from programmers to engineers to team leader.

The groups had to complete construction of their robots within a set time frame based upon set criteria, and Williams noted that it was interesting to see how group dynamics changed and evolved during the course of the unit.

Each group used a LEGO Mindstorm Robotics kit containing all the items needed to build and program a self-propelled robot (http://mindstorms.lego.com/en-us/Default.aspx).

The kit included gears, wheels, microcomputers, various types of sensors, interactive motors, software that uses an icon-based programming language, cables, etc.

Robots are currently used in a wide spectrum of categories, including the medical field, industry, the military, and many households have a self-driven vacuum cleaner in their home. The application of robotics will only increase in the future.

Interestingly, before launching into the robotics unit, a pre-test covering needed math skills — circumference and diameter measurement, probability, some physics — revealed only 5 percent of the students passed. However, a post-test showed 90 percent of the students passed.

When I asked students about the challenges they’d encountered throughout, here are some of the things they said: “… sometimes we butted heads, but we just had to work it out … we kept changing team leaders until this shy person took over and did a great job… if we started arguing, it helped to just let it go, and start fresh the next day… some of the problems were really tough to work out, so once we got it, we went to the other teams and shared different solutions… we should have planned better, but our daily logs that Mrs. Williams made us keep really helped.”

Sounds like these students learned more than how to build a robot.

Cindy Kleyn-Kennedy is the Instructional Technology Coordinator for the Clovis Municipal Schools and can be reached at cindy.kleyn-kennedy@clovis-schools.org